Saturday, September 12, 2009

FRANKFURT, Germany | Two German merchant ships have traversed the fabled Northeast Passage after global warming and melting ice opened a route from South Korea along Russia’s Arctic coast to Siberia.

Now the ships are poised to complete their journey through the cold waters where icebergs abound, heading for Rotterdam in the Netherlands with 3,500 tons of construction parts.

The merchant ships MV Beluga Fraternity and MV Beluga Foresight arrived this week in Yamburg, Siberia, their owner, Beluga Shipping GmbH, said Friday. They traveled from Ulsan, South Korea, in late July to Siberia by way of the Northeast Passage, a sea lane that, in years past, was avoided because of its heavy ice floes.

Scientists report that the Arctic Ocean ice cap has been shrinking to unprecedented levels in recent summers, because of global warming, opening up many passages that were ice-choked in earlier times.

In July, new NASA satellite measurements showed that sea ice in the Arctic was not just shrinking in area, but thinning dramatically.

Niels Stolberg, the president of Beluga, which is based in the German city of Bremen, called it the first time a Western shipping company successfully transited the Northeast Passage.

“To transit the Northeast Passage so well and professionally without incident on the premiere is the result of our extremely accurate preparation as well as the outstanding teamwork between our attentive captains, our reliable meteorologists and our engaged crew,” Mr. Stolberg said.

He said the shipping company was planning more voyages through the area in coming months. Traditionally, shippers traveling from Asia to Europe have to go through the Gulf of Aden and through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea and, depending on their destination, into the Atlantic Ocean.

A journey from South Korea to the Netherlands, for example, is about 11,000 nautical miles (12,658 miles). By going northward and using the Northeast Passage, approximately 3,000 nautical miles (3,452 miles) and 10 days can be shaved off. That means lower fuel costs.

Researchers said the ability to navigate the route showed climate change.

“We are seeing an expression of climate change here,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “The Arctic is warming; we’re losing the sea ice cover. The more frequent opening of that Northeast Passage is part of the process we’re seeing.”

“The Arctic is becoming a blue ocean,” Mr. Serreze said.

For the last few years, including this year, navigator Roald Amundsen’s famous Northwest Passage has been navigable. Then in 2007, the more crucial deep water channel called McClure Strait opened up and now the Northeast Passage, Mr. Serreze said. The passage “is the traditional choke point,” he said.

Both ships, which carried cargo for a power plant project in Surgut, Siberia, were escorted by a pair of Russian icebreakers during portions of their journey. The Beluga Fraternity left South Korea on July 23, followed by the Beluga Foresight on July 28.

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